Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series.
We are in a Crisis of Process. OK, I have written more exciting lead sentences than that — everybody has. However, I will keep those words as they are, because they make an important, even life-saving point.
I will argue, in this two-part series, that problems of process inside the federal government are threatening not only our national well-being, but also our national security. And I will offer some solutions put forth by Bob Walker, who capped his 10 terms in Congress as chairman of the House Science Committee and member of the Republican Leadership in the historic 104th Congress.
Both of us will remind conservatives and free-marketeers, who like to affect a nonchalant disdain of government — even when they are running the government — of the following reality: Nobody makes you run for elective office. But if you want to hold high office, then you have to take that office seriously. If you are in the government, you have to govern. And that means, either make the existing system work, or else bring forth a better system. What you can't do is pretend that it's someone else's problem. The buck stops with you.
Yes, the topic of process is boring to many, but the consequences that flow from the failure of process are not boring at all. For example, if the once-obscure and back-burner-ish Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) fails at Hurricane Katrina relief, because it's tangled up in turf issues inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — well, that's a front-burner, front-page issue.
Similarly, if the even duller-sounding Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) undoes the Dubai Ports World deal — that makes for an even hotter potato.
Six months after Katrina, nobody will argue that FEMA handled the storm well. The only question is: who, what, and who else is to blame?
As for CFIUS and Dubai, there had been plenty of good arguments to
be made on behalf of that now-derailed deal, but the process was so
badly handled that there was no chance for advocates to make those
arguments. That is, if top officials — including the President, the
Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Homeland Security — all
found out about the decision after it was made, then by definition
there was no possibility of a coordinated communications strategy for
presenting the deal's merits to the American people. Apparently, the
highest-ranking official involved in the CFIUS process was Deputy
Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, who has been known in the past to be
inattentive to the politics-of-process sensitivities, as in his failure
to spot the vulnerabilities of Dan Quayle back in 1988.
In a Dubai-deal post-mortem on the March 12 edition of "Fox News Sunday," Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, dismissed the CFIUS examination of the Dubai deal as "superficial"; on the same show, Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN), Chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, declared bluntly that President George W. Bush had been "ill-served by an antiquated process."
Being ill-served on process means being ill-served on policy, and on politics. As Bush's declining poll numbers demonstrate, the American people expect their leaders to do a good job — on all aspects of the job.
Other process-problems are likely to loom large, too, as we head toward midterm and presidential elections. Let's consider education; at the federal level, that's a process-issue. That is, Uncle Sam can't actually run the schools, but the feds can set in place a system of carrots and sticks to make sure that kids get the education they need — and America gets the competitive workforce it needs.
Some might question whether that's a proper role for Washington to play, but in practical terms the argument was settled a quarter-century ago, when President Ronald Reagan declared that we were "a nation at risk" because of faulty education. The Gipper's own education task force included the famous sentence, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." If the stakes were that high — and are that high today — then no presidential hopeful, in either party, can afford to disregard education. No wonder, then, that in 1988, George H.W. Bush campaigned as "the education president." Four years later, Bill Clinton campaigned as "the real education president." Most recently, in 2000, George W. Bush railed against the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and pledged a "no child left behind" education agenda.
Yet more than four years after the "No Child Left Behind Act" was signed into law, the improvements seem to be meager. A recent headline in The Washington Post reads, "Test Scores Move Little in Math, Reading/Improvement Appears Slight Since No Child Left Behind." OK, one might say, that's just the Post being its liberal Bush-bashing self. But plenty of responsible non-liberals say pretty much the same thing; in the carefully chosen words of Heritage Foundation analyst Dan Lips, "The jury is still out on whether No Child Left Behind is having a positive impact."
Meanwhile, many conservatives prefer to take the tack of denying that they have anything to do with the federal government — even when they run the federal government. Senator George Allen (R-VA) entering the Senate in 2001, as Bush was entering the White House, voted for "No Child Left Behind" in 2001, and has supported both of Bush's nominees to be Secretary of Education; in fact, Allen's overall support score for Bush stands at 96 percent, the third-highest for any Senator. Therefore it was a bit strange to see Allen trashing federal education policy to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis on Saturday: "We don't want to be dumbing down our [state] standards to federal levels and federal Department of Education bureaucrats in education."
If Allen feels that way, he should say so during his day job — that is, in Washington, as a U.S. Senator. More to the point, as he campaigns for the 2008 presidential nomination, however unofficially, he should talk in detail about how he would change the status quo. Is he for more privatization? Vouchers? The University of Phoenix? Installing Google in every student's head?
Once again it's worth noting: Engaging in the mental effort of thinking about process does not require devotion to the status quo of inputs; instead, it requires a devotion to improved outputs. And if improving outcomes means re-engineering the entire system, so be it. Allen and others should know that just dumping on the existing system won't accomplish anything — especially, after all, since Allen sits near the pinnacle of the current system.
Some conservatives will insist that the Republicans can win the presidency again, without paying much heed to domestic issues — other than, maybe, tax cuts and abortion. And that cynical calculus might hold true; so long as "macro" issues such as national security and the overall state of the economy are favoring the GOP, perhaps it doesn't matter too much, at least at the presidential level, if the party is seen as neglectful of education, health care, and so on. (Getting elected to lesser office, of course, such as governor or mayor, is a different story.)
But if that's the case — if Republicans seeking the White House can win by focusing only on macro issues — well, then, it behooves GOPers to get those macro issues right. So let's return to our first two examples of failed process: Katrina and Dubai. Both process-failures fall under the general umbrella of national security and homeland security. If Republicans are truly going to be the protective "daddy party", then they'd better be no-nonsense about getting their security act together.
Here's where a book published last year, Running The World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, might be helpful. Author David Rothkopf is an alumnus of Bill Clinton's sub-Cabinet, although he is no lily-livered liberal. He describes himself as a "centrist Democrat" with a strong pro-globalization streak. Having worked in international issues at the Department of Commerce, Rothkopf later worked in the private sector for two former national security advisers, Republican Henry Kissinger and Democrat Anthony Lake; he has a solid enough understanding of how decisions get made, and why they succeed — or fail. And Running The World is a 554-page paean to the importance of process. It is basically a history of the National Security Council (NSC) and its operations, particularly emphasizing the first-hand recollections of key players over the last two decades.
As Rothkopf writes, ready or not, NSC-ers "find themselves in charge of the realities of leading the world." So he has written this book, in part, to help future NSC-ers prepare themselves for their daunting mission. Even those who disagree with Rothkopf's Clintonian vision history will find that the book makes a contribution to NSC-ology, to an understanding of NSC process.
Interestingly, the NSC has little institutional structure. Although it exists by statute — it was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which also created the Department of Defense and the Directorate of Central Intelligence — the NSC has virtually no permanent staff, and has never had a large staff, at least compared to other agencies. Yet the NSC succeeds, when it succeeds, when it pulls together useful information and advice to help the President make wise choices. That's the key issue, according to Rothkopf: Can the NSC coordinate an orderly and timely decision-making process?<>But as we have seen, national security now means homeland security. And a look back at Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, reminds us that the national-homeland security nexus is still grievously inadequate. Katrina was a natural disaster, but it was fraught with national-security implications; the response was overseen (or not) by DHS, the same outfit that would have led the response to a mega-terrorist attack. Using Clausewitzian terminology, many who were at FEMA and DHS at the time have said the Katrina response suffered from "the fog of war" — or the "fog of bureaucracy".
Even the President, using a term straight from contemporary Pentagon-ese, told ABC News last month that the White House lacked "situational awareness" of the Katrina situation. That's a failure of process, the process of keeping the Commander-in-Chief fully informed, at the intersection where national security meets domestic tranquility — an intersection we are undoubtedly going to be visiting many times in the future. >
So what to do? If the federal government is responsible for natural, as well as unnatural, disasters, then the federal government needs to improve its process. It needs a better standard operating procedure. Here Rothkopf has some suggestions. Reflecting the Clintonish view that foreign policy is mostly an extension of domestic policy ("it's the economy, stupid"), Rothkopf pauses from his history of the NSC to argue for a strong NEC — a National Economic Council — such as existed during the Clinton years.
As the name suggests, the NEC is the economic equivalent of the NSC; Rothkopf quotes the 42nd president saying that the NEC was intended to "operate in much the same way the National Security Council did, bringing all the relevant agencies together to formulate and implement policy." The result was an NEC that was "successful and productive," especially under Robert Rubin in 1993-4. And in fact, whether one likes it or not, the Clinton-Rubin team accomplished much — from raising taxes to securing Congressional acquiescence to two huge agreements, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Of course, many will insist that some of the Clinton-Rubin economic policies — the tax increase and the "Hillary-care" proposal come to mind — were counterproductive, and that the Clinton administration was saved from the economic shoals only by the push of the Gingrich-ized Republican Congress and the pull of the Internet. Which is a reminder: Effective process is a necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, condition for overall success.
And while Rothkopf's advocacy of a rigorous NSC-like process for domestic issues is basically sound, most non-Clintonians will probably reject his claim that "the biggest national security threats to the United States are domestic." When I heard him say that at a luncheon here in Washington, I asked him to repeat those words, so that I could be sure of what he said — and he did so, happily.
His argument is that the key variables for a country's well-being are the strength and dynamism of the economy and society, which of necessity must support any foreign policy or national security strategy. To which some might respond that if one defines "national security" too loosely, then anything can become an urgent "national security" issue, from fiscal policy to education; Vice President Al Gore even claimed that AIDS in Africa was a national security threat. Yet when national security means everything, national security policy means nothing. So part of the process is narrowing the process; not everything can be included.
Still, Republicans, with their more threat-oriented view of national security, face the challenge of helping Bush out of his current slump in the polls, as well as helping the GOP develop a more robust vision of problem-solving. That is, Republicans need to figure out how to deal more effectively with such process-failures as Katrina, Dubai — and, yes, even education. Come to think of it, all Americans, regardless of party, have a stake in those concerns. And they will certainly vote according to those concerns in coming elections.
For further perspective, I turned to G. Philip Hughes, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, whose federal service included a 1989-90 stint as executive secretary of the NSC; he is also deeply familiar with domestic issues, having worked in the Commerce Department, not to mention his current position at the White House Writers Group.
I asked Hughes: "What lessons does the NSC model offer for domestic governance?" In his answer, he echoed Rothkopf's point about the value of centralized and coordinated policymaking. In addition, he recalled one particular strength that diplomatic and national security-oriented outfits have brought to the policymaking table: centuries of ingrained professionalism. For the military, he declared, "It's literally a matter of life or death whether you're properly organized, equipped, and led in order to 'take that hill'" — that tends to focus the mind. By contrast, the stakes for domestic policy have rarely been so high; as a result, domestic agencies have often been used as "political dumping grounds." But such lazy hazy ma~nana-thinking could be changing, he concluded, in the Age of Terror.
One shudders to think of it like this, but Hughes is on to
something: Just as, say, the U.S. Army had no choice but to shape up
after Bull Run or Kasserine Pass,
so it might be that FEMA and DHS and other entities will be remembered
as having gotten their act together some time in the early 21st century.
But that hasn't happened yet. And of course, there's still the rest of the federal government to make better.
How to make it happen will be the subject of part two of this series.James Pinkerton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a TCS contributing writer.